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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Angelopoulos Agnostic, 19 Feb. 2013
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This review is from: The Theo Angelopoulos Collection Vol 1 (4 Discs) [DVD] [1970] (DVD)
Having only seen a couple of later Angelopoulos films (& caring for neither) I was hoping to really get to grips with this director via this box set containing TA's first 4 films, the films that made his reputation. There's some interesting reviews & discussion of these box sets on Amazon from long-time fans, so it might be worth posting the opinions of someone relatively new to Angelopoulos, a non-convert, now that I've had a chance to watch each film in box set #1 at least twice.

There is nothing cinephiles like better than a box set series rounding up a director's complete works in chronological order, so Artificial Eye are to be congratulated for their efforts - the only criticism of these no-frills boxes might be the lack of the kind of booklets labels like Masters of Cinema / Second Run / BFI tend to include. These films need a little bit of contextual info more than most - so it's worth checking out interviews with TA about each film in books or online before watching.

THE RECONSTRUCTION (1970)
A peasant wife murders her émigré husband - the case is investigated & repeatedly reconstructed by police, journalists & film makers.
A low budget black & white film, but excellent grimly evocative cinematography. This film carries all kinds of resonances about the poverty of Greek provincial village life, emigration & the socio-economic backwardness of Greece as a whole under the post-war military dictatorship. The film is also very self-reflexive, blurring the lines between fiction & reality, questioning the documentary `truth' of cinema. But these various layers of allegorical meaning never distract from the enigmatic power of the central storyline (Kairostami & the Iranians must surely have seen this film back in the 1970s....) A good if challenging film which was even better on second viewing.

DAYS OF '36 (1972)
Greece 1936: A union leader is assassinated by an agent provocateur who then takes a hostage. The army / government must free the hostage but how? And are they politically complicit with the right wing assassin?
A bigger budget & colour - impressive elaborate choreographing of scenes & camerawork. Very elliptical narrative. A rather confusing film on first viewing despite a simple central plot situation. But the film is a lot more comprehensible on second viewing & Angelopoulos certainly knows how to portray the paranoia & pervasive violence of a fascistic society in political crisis. A good film - worth persevering with (but maybe worth reading up on the historical background first).

THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS (1975)
An acting troupe travel around Greece across a couple of decades, always performing the same scenes from the same antiquated play in various political contexts before & after WW2 (ie performing under successive foreign occupations & the basic civil war split between right wing militia & communist partisans).
This is generally regarded as Angelopoulos' masterpiece & obviously I appreciate the achievement of putting all this repressed Greek history on the screen while the military junta era was coming to a close & I appreciated the clever narrative structure (weaving back & forth between time periods within long takes). Nevertheless, watching the film for the first time in 2012 rather than 1975, I found the film rather arduous & unsatisfying & it didn't improve much on second viewing. It reminded me of the Brechtian agit-prop theatre of the 70s & 80s - fine on stage but inherently uncinematic. Much of the film is like a cursory potted history & the characters mere ciphers (yes I understand the intention is to block empathy or psychological identification but it seemed simplistic to me on that level). Even politically I'm not sure there is any real depth to the analysis. The long sequence shots & camera set ups seemed inconsistent to me - lacking the authority of Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Jancso et al.

THE HUNTERS (1977)
In the 1950s a group of bourgeois holidaymaking hunters accidently shoot a communist partisan - from the 1940s! How could this historical impossibility have happened and what should they do with the body?
Again this seemed more like a Brechtian theatre piece based around a simple conceit - more suitable for the stage than the screen. Some of the film is quite blackly comic & the basic political `joke' is quite well achieved, but the set pieces in the latter half of the film seemed increasingly contrived to me. An uneven film. There's something disturbing about how Angelopoulos presents sexuality / sexual violence too, aside from what is intentional.

Overall conclusion? Well, having gone on & ordered Box Set volume 2 I must have been partially converted, but still remain an Angelopoulos agnostic - only really liking Reconstruction & (to an extent) Days of 36. There's often something flat, ponderous & superficial about the sensibility & execution - and from his cinematic style (eg the sequence shots) there's little of the sheer thrill to be had from the classic modernists or from recent `late modernists' like Bela Tarr, Bilge Ceylan, Jai Zhangke, Kairostami. At the very least, given the current crisis in Greece, the films certainly help to provide an interesting historical education & it's obviously worth picking up these box sets at Amazon discounts while they are available, but, speaking purely as someone new to the films, I'm not (yet) convinced that Theo belongs in the first rank of directors.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 2 Jun 2016 17:39:14 BDT
Suzanne says:
While I disagree with your assessment, I appreciate the high quality of your review. Ironically, you seem to like best the films I think are among Theo's weaker efforts (Reconstruction and Days of '36), so it's possible we just have vastly different aesthetic preferences. I simply can't agree that Theo's sequence shots "lack the authority of Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Jancso, et al.," and, if anything, I find Theo's better--more beautiful, more impressive. In fact, the only two filmmakers I think used the long-take to better effect were Mizoguchi (one of Theo and Tarkovsky's primary influences) and Ophuls. Yet I don't think any of these filmmakers were more consistently beautiful and surprising as Theo, who seemed to have a rare magic of conjuring unusual and unforgettable images more akin to the great painters. I also think you may be off on your Brecht comparison. Andrew Horton in his book on Theo noted a very different and older influence in Byzantine art, where "characters" are merely ciphers placed in heavily symbolic backgrounds. I also think the relationship between art and truth is probably more influenced by Bergman (Persona was one of Theo's favorite films). I also can't agree that there's no depth to The Traveling Players, a film I feel has the substance of the greatest novels; unlike you, I've found it more impressive with each additional viewing.

Finally, while you certainly listed some great contemporaries--Tarr, Ceylan, Zhangke are all favorites of mine; I'd also mention Hou Hsiao-hsien, who's one of the few filmmakers who can match Theo for sheer pictorial beauty--I'd rank Theo well ahead of all of them. Tarr and Ceylan can match Theo's visual prowess, I don't think they've made enough films to equal Theo's filmography. If Tarr had released maybe 5 or 6 more films up to the quality of Satantango and Werckmeister Harmonies, I think he would be close. I still feel like I'm waiting for an undisputed Ceylan masterpiece, but Distant and Anatolia are close. Zhangke has Theo's novel-esque depth, but lacks his visual eye. Kiarostami has been one of the most hit-and-miss filmmakers for me; love Close-Up and The Wind Will Carry Us, hated A Taste of Cherry, Ten, and thought Certified Copy was utterly average and Five a rather silly experiment.
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